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Could VAR Mistake Spell Doom For Arsenal’s Premier League Title Hopes?

As a result of the Gunners’ 1-1 draw to Brentford, Arsenal sacrificed crucial points that could affect the table.      

By Andrew Woodin
The Big screen shows that VAR is checking the Brentford goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Brentford FC at Emirates Stadium on February 11, 2023 in London, England

Please, someone stop the bleeding, quickly.

Even prior to their shocking defeat to Everton, Arsenal’s once vice-like grip on the Premier League title race has been loosening of late, threatening to derail their potential return to the top of the league for the first time in nearly two decades. And now, after a controversial decision by VAR led to them dropping critical points for the second week in a row — this time to a mediocre Brentford squad — worry isn’t just starting to set in, it might just be here to stay.  

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What is VAR?

The system in question is called the video assistant referee (VAR), which is employed when a key refereeing decision might, in the eyes of a game official watching with the benefit of video review, a tight, warrant a review. The official will communicate with the on-field referee that they should take a second look, which the ref does on a pitch-side screen. VAR is primarily used in goal, red card and penalty decisions.

What happened in the Arsenal-Brentford match?

Thanks to Leandro Trossard’s well-timed tap-in, Arsenal led Brantford 1-0, but Ivan Toney was knocking on the Gunners’ door the entire match, and fate rewarded him with the equalizer in the 74th minute. The Bees curled a free kick deep into Arsenal territory, and after bouncing around the box, the ball fell to Toney for the easy header.

Premier League official Lee Mason was serving as the video assistant referee for the match, and reviewed whether whether Toney was onside for the goal, as well as whether Ethan Pinnock committed a foul against Gabriel in the build-up to the goal. Mason concluded Toney was onside and that no foul had occurred, thus the goal stood. But not so fast ...

Mason failed to recognize that Christian Norgaard was clearly offside prior to him playing in the cross that Toney would ultimately score on.

“I just looked back, and it is offside, yes,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta revealed after the game to Sky Sports. “Have they explained why it wasn’t allowed? No. It is frustrating, but they will probably give an explanation later in the week. Today we haven’t got one.”

“You have to apply certain principles in defending, and you do that by sticking to the rules,” continued Arteta. “Suddenly you change the rules, and then you have to change your principles. So, tell us before so then you don’t hold the (defensive) line that high. Because you’re always going to have an advantage if you get blocked. You cannot block if you are offside.”

Mason and Arsenal have been down this road before

Arsenal and Mason have intertwined histories. In a match earlier this year, VAR was utilized to rule on a goal Arsenal seemed to have scored against Manchester United in September. The result saw Mason disallow Gabriel Martinelli’s goal against the Red Devils when the game was scoreless. Arsenal ended up losing 3-1, but after the match, an independent assessment panel reportedly found that VAR decision to be among a handful of incorrect interventions, according to ESPN.

Did VAR fail to do its job?

In the wake of the fallout from the controversial decision, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), which oversees referees in the Premier League, detailed to CNN that Howard Webb, the organization’s Chief Refereeing Officer, contacted the Gunners “to acknowledge and explain the significant errors in the VAR process.” In effort to increase transparency and remain accountable — really to get out ahead of the problem before it erupted further — Webb noted that the error was “being thoroughly reviewed by the PGMOL.”

While the transparency is appreciated, the fact remains that the mistake contributed to Arsenal dropping two critical points. Now that the Gunners stand just three points above Manchester City, all Arsenal fans can do is hope Arteta’s squad can put it in their rear view and restore some momentum toward their title ambitions.

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